[Ego Adaptation to Reality= But What ‘Reality’?]
It is a common assertion in psychology and psychotherapy that through the ‘ego’ we adapt to reality, and therefore that without an ego we would find adapting to reality difficult, if not impossible. The ego helps us deal with the demands and threats of reality. The pre-ego child just folds in the face of such demands and threats= they simply cannot cope.
But what is the ‘reality’ that we need an ego in order to withstand? This question proves crucial. Yet it is very profound. It is far harder to answer than it first appears.
The more I ponder it, the more elusive it gets.
Some writers argue in a manner that suggests it is existential reality that the ego helps us face, but this is a far-reaching and fundamental error. The ego is not aware of existential reality, and blots it out. Existential reality slays the ego. It is not the existential givens that the ego ‘deals’ with; it takes heart, and personalness, to deal with these.
But what sort of reality is it that the ego helps us cope with? This is the reality the ego also gets stuck on, cannot move beyond, is confined to. Whether it overwhelms a weak ego, or a strong ego masters it, this reality dictates the limits of the ‘world’ within which the ego operates. The reality which ego sees and helps us master is called ‘worldly’, but that is a religious term that may not speak to everyone. The world contains many possibilities, and worldliness is but one aspect of it. But it is a very powerful aspect, and as the ego grapples with it, so it develops from the initial terror of being overwhelmed by this power to the intoxication of regarding itself in command of that power. The ego grows powerful through the sense it acquires of being able to subdue, control, get the better of, this power that is so intimidating.
What is this worldliness, this ‘reality’ we face more and more as we leave the warmth of enclosure in the family? Even a bad family, like a good one, still encloses us in some subtle sense. But this reality will not enclose us. It will not parent us. It will not be contactable as parents were, and it does not respond like them. This worldliness, this reality which is the child-slayer, is an ‘alien’ power. This is the key description that came to me as I wrestled with it. Whether the parental enclosure is good or bad, it is still an enclosure, it deals in emotional currencies, and that makes it ‘familiar’ to the emotional side of the child. But reality is not dealing in those currencies at all; it cares not whether the child lives or dies; it is not familiar, contactable in the currencies of emotionality in which the parents were contactable, and therefore it is not familiar, but radically alien. It is not simply the absence of a parental presence, it is a positive presence of a different kind. This alien power looms right into us, and we cannot use childhood tricks to dent it. It isn’t moved by childish magical thinking, childish tantrums, even childlike appeals to love. The world is deaf to all that. The world therefore seems cold, harsh, implacable/immoveable, to the child and emotional part of us, because the world really is indifferent to that primal side of us. The world is like a door that we try to open, resorting to all we have acquired from childhood, by way of love, abandonment, abuse, all our good and bad experience, but the door does not open to any of this. It doesn’t care. It is not reachable in this way, it cannot be affected in these terms. Something in the Otherness of the world is like the Otherness of God= a giant ice wall so huge, we cower before it, small, at a loss, freezing.
In part, this alien power that is reality, this alien presence that is worldliness, is what science seizes hold of, to help us vanquish it, to help us move out from underneath it and get on top of it. Mechanism= the world’s lack of awareness, its lack of friendliness, its relentless ticking over according to laws obscure to grasp. The world is unforgiving in this sense= if I bump into mummy or daddy and hurt my knee, they comfort me, they are sorry it happened; if I bruise my knee against a pile of stones, I just bleed, the stones aren’t sorry. But the alien power is more than the world’s machine-like nature, with its relentless and impersonal cause and effect, lacking all friendliness, lacking all responsiveness to the love and human relating that sustained us throughout childhood but proves unable to help us survive in the world. There is something more to its unmovable/implacable quality, something more to its alien power. What is ‘alien’ to us can, in part, be explained by science, but there is another aspect to it that is much more mysterious, much more potentially overwhelming and disabling. No wonder the Jungian ‘puer aeterna’ [eternal child] refuses to grow up, prefers to have some connection to the Self-facilitated by early Object Relational bonding and Narcissistic support, but refuses to acquire the ego that would signify entering and accommodating the world’s reality. Pre-ego people refuse to grapple with the alien power that confronts them, as they leave childhood’s ‘unreality’ behind.
The deeper aspect of the alien reality of the world is mysterious and hugely overwhelming and disabling because it tells us something we do not want to hear. The world’s reality is something that, if we were in connection with it, would respond to us, but because we are out of connection, it will not. Something in us knows it should be that if we sing to the wind, it will whisper back, in reply= but because the wind is not interested, and unreachable, this tells us that, irrespective of the connections we had as child to parents, there is a much deeper, much more far-reaching, disjunction, fissure, gap, alienation, between us and reality. Reality’s unresponsiveness to us is disillusioning and frightening to the child, but it asks the child to put away toys and all other ‘childish things’, and grow up, by taking responsibility for our deeper disconnectedness from reality. Reality fails to answer us when we try to contact it humanly because it is we, in our humanity, who are not available to reality. We are fallen away, we are fallen into separation and duality. We are not available, as we could be, as we need to be, to ‘move’ reality humanly, and to induce it to open up to our humanity.
The alien presence in the world is the world after the human cataclysm of the Fall. The world is alien to us, it is unmoved by our empathy, our poetry, our proffered hand in friendship, because we are, in some depths of our humanity we can hardly sense, alien to it, turned away, indifferent and unconnected.
The reality so cruel and cold is the world once humanity has Fallen. It is the experience of the world as Fallen, as an entity locked up in itself and therefore not open to communication; but more subtly, it is really, more truthfully, the experience of ourselves as Fallen, because it is we who have become an entity locked up in itself and therefore not open to communication. In this experience of confrontation with something alienated, we are really confronted with our own alienation. We are separate, at depth, from the reality that we meet as separate from us. The alien presence in the world is a mirror held up to us, which few people want to gaze into, to see what is really there.
We know in our bone and blood we should be the key to unlock reality. But the wind blows indifferently to our song, and the animals flee at the very smell of us. The alien power so terrifying without us is in reality within us; we are the alien power.
Ego development, then, contains a vast and bottomless human lie, for at this junction-point, two very different paths open up.
The path of religion, at this point of decision, begins the quest to change the human nature that cannot be to the world what it is called to be. The wind will respond to our song, and on the day of the Sun Dance the sun in the sky will stop in its tracks, and will attend. On the day of the Cross the sun will hide his face from the earth, and not return until the Resurrection of Easter. On Easter day, the sun in the sky will stop in his tracks and dance. But don’t ask for this prematurely. Reality is perfectly right to rebuff us until we have genuinely and fundamentally changed.
The path of the ego, at this same point of decision, becomes a lie. For we accept the world’s alien quality as a fact, and we reinforce our separation from the world in order to be able to control, master, conquer it. Power, and all its ramifications of domination, of ‘power over the other’ [E.G. Howe], then becomes our quest. It is here the ego striving for adaptation changes into something different= the ambition by the ego to win out, to triumph over the alien power, to subdue it, and it is in this process that the ego becomes intoxicated with its own power, and starts to regard that as an end in itself. The lie? We use our separation from the world– reinforcing it, armouring it, skilling it– to conquer the world that is separate from us. This conquest freezes the world in its alienated state, and therefore confines the world to a brittle, bright, but hollow, surface; and the ego becomes the tin pot dictator of the surface.
The path of religion understands that separation is an illness, and seeks its healing.
The path of ego glories in separation, having originally been scared by it, because it cuts its teeth on it. But there is a price= as we master the separated, so we become ever more separate.
The alien power that is a ‘worldly’ presence in the world is the world without God and the world without the human presence that is required to open it to, and find God in, that world.
The alien power is the world opaque, resistant, closed in on itself, because that is how we are and we don’t even know it and won’t take any responsibility to do something about it.
Instead of asking, ‘what in the world is so harshly deaf to our presence?’, we should ask, ‘why is our presence so harshly deaf to the world?’ The answer would chill us to the bone, far more so than anything about the world we have to deal with.
For the answer is, we are the alien power.
To acknowledge this would relativize, humble, keep small, the ego from the start of its development; it would be only about helping us adapt, it would not become drunk on egoic power as an end in itself.
The ego can help us survive the situation of alienation, but that does not mean the ego has to profit from and grow fat on alienation.
We should listen to the silence of the wind, deaf to all our entreaties, and draw the true conclusion.